Tuesday, April 6, 2010
[flicker] Road, Movie
‘Please, don't spoil my day, I'm miles away
And after all I'm only sleeping
Keeping an eye on the world going by my window
Taking my time’
- Lennon & McCartney, I’m Only Sleeping
Director Dev Benegal’s first full length directorial venture in 10years ‘Road, Movie’ is as one of Richard Linklater’s iconic slackers ‘The Man in the Boat-Car’ in ‘Waking Life’ puts it so well- ‘in motion to the ocean.’ In times like these, where motion has come to strictly connote cold, dreary and deadhead concepts like momentum, progress and the strictly A to B and all of that operating strictly within the unshakable bracket-pillars of strict deadlines, ‘Road, Movie’ is that rare motion picture that rediscovers delight in the seemingly archaic adventure of losing oneself somewhere along the road. The firmament of this beautiful film is atomized by the frozen ice of time giving away to the timeless poetry of dreams. It is a film at the velveteen altar of sloth but not as how the mainstream critics have put it, in terms of ‘ennui’ and ‘banality’ and ‘déjà vu’, but as Thomas Pynchon takes it in his essay, all the way back to its ancient Latin origin in the word ‘acedia’- the high of sloth. The loaf-about, an aimless ramble, the zeitgeist of a bar table that has continued from noon till late into the night, a blues song about worn shoes, horizon after horizon, a yawn, couple of winks and a dream spectacular. It is a kind of freedom that goes beyond mere concept and ideology. The tyranny of words itself have evaporated. A most high mead afforded to mortals. An infinite expanse.
‘Road, Movie’ is a story of Vishnu, heir to father’s plummeting hair-oil business, who agrees to transport a few cartons of the oil to a place far, far away in an ancient rickety truck that was once a mobile cinema. Vishnu is something of a conceited young man and at its bare-bones, the film chronicles his journey through the picturesque deserts of Kutch, his encounters with strangers and finally, his coming of age. And even at this level, unlike the usual trope-treading tripe such as ‘Good Will Hunting’ or ‘Rocket Singh’ where the coming-of-age seems to be an exclusive shorthand for ‘forward progress’ and ‘success’, the film is more about Vishnu discovering the pleasure that lies dormant within his bones, a good stretch and a terrific yawn, picking a knowing passivity that allows him to find himself, over becoming yet another undead cog in the great streamlined machine. One could call it a ‘shift of paradigm’ but that would be playing straight into the hands of the machine and nothing could do more disservice to the inherent poetry of it all. Instead one could say that within the barren infinity of the desert dunes, what passes as the dread of nothingness is recognized as a possibility of being possessed by the ecstasy of an invisible gypsy wind. As Lynyrd Skynyrd put it- Call me the breeze.
Two standout montage sequences underline the electric skyline vibe that runs through the film. The first one where the tale of ‘Arabian Nights’ (the canonical masterpiece of acedia) is recalled and the scene gives away to a fluid and abstract invocation of escapism and the power of stories and the second is the sequence of the carnival in the desert that invokes Fellini, Guru Dutt, Bollywood cinema of yore and puts them on a psychedelic spin that is sheer delirium to behold.
The film is suffused with quirk to spare and ‘quirk’ being one those words that is most loosely used and mostly these days, as a mere auxiliary to ‘childlike’. But like the best of Wes Anderson, ‘quirk’ in ‘Road, Movie’ is the juxtaposition of tragedy and humor or rather humor born out of a sense of tragedy which in turn, collates into a formless pool of a certain despair. It is the tragicomedy of reaching your hand out in all hope and getting nothing but a ridiculous banana within its grasp.
Director Benegal makes the tale of a group of women who walk through the desert in search of water as a palate for this ineffable despair and the tragedy. Later, we meet a water bandit who monopolizes all the water in the desert and Benegal plays the scene out as a brilliant charade via Sergio Leone and pokes ridicule at the conceit at the heart of the great streamlined machine. He pokes them where it should probably hurt the most. Literally and metaphorically, ‘the balls’.
The dynamics of water and its distribution, (which these days finally seem to be deemed newsworthy inspite of being a pressing matter for far too many years) seem to be one of Benegal’s abiding concerns. His last film, ‘Split Wide Open’ (criminally unavailable on DVD) released at the turn of the millennium not only predicted the oncoming sleaze of reality television but also, the clout of the water mafia that supplied tap water to the slums and Evian for those who could afford it. To his credit, in both the films the director refrains from the froth and the fist but asks us to pay attention and understand. It is precisely this approach that makes him images unencumbered and free and a lot of what happens lies in the delicate ether of emotion and feeling.
Benegal’s take on India has been criticized as exotic and such is the case but it is not, thankfully, of the ‘holy cow’ variety. Instead Benegal’s gaze looks at the nation with the eye of a person who has the despair and hence, the quirk of one failing to belong. Not very different from Jim Jarmusch, another stranger in his own land. The decisive comma in its title- ‘Road, Movie’ is precisely that paradox. A slight detachment and a little deadbeat pause which gives the audience enough time, in the midst of the rush to illusionary finale, to look within themselves, beyond the walls and enjoy the ride.
(Cross-posted at www.passionforcinema.com)